UK: Student fees review launched

The long-awaited review to overhaul the student funding system was launched last Tuesday by higher education secretary Lord Mandelson with Conservative support, but the results will not be ready until after the next general election. Former chief executive of BP, Lord Browne, was appointed to chair the review amid fears of soaring fees.

At present, universities can charge a maximum of £3,225 (US$5,334) a year for tuition. Many institutions have lobbied to raise top-up fees to £7,000.

Lord Mandelson said students would be involved in discussions on funding. The review would "examine the balance of contributions to universities by taxpayers, students, graduates and employers".

The review will decide what to charge students while attempting to ensure that higher fees do not deter poorer people from applying; it will look at how student loans are subsidised and how bursaries are awarded. Lord Browne will also see if there should be a more diverse funding and charging system to reflect the more flexible ways that people are studying - part-time, in industry, and online, for example.

The Conservatives' universities spokesman, David Willetts, said this was "the right way to address this critical issue". But Liberal Democrat university spokesman Stephen Williams said: "This review is nothing but a conspiracy between Labour and the Tories designed to keep plans to hike up tuition fees off the agenda until after the general election."

Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the University and College Union, said political parties must still declare their positions on how much students should pay and how loans should be funded, before the election. "Failure to do so will deny the general public a voice in the debate on the future of university funding."

Professor Les Ebdon, Chair of the university think-tank million+ and Vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, agreed: "Political parties cannot hide behind this review. In particular the Labour and Conservative parties need to say where they stand before voters go to the polls next year. When the banks continue to be bailed out, students and graduates will want assurances that they will not be asked to pay more simply to make up for cuts in public funding."

The government was warned of a backlash from voters if the review proposed plunging students into greater debt. Wes Streeting, President of the National Union of Students, said results from a survey carried out by the union showed there was little public sympathy for increased fees.

A different view came from the elite end of the spectrum. Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, welcomed the review, saying: "As universities are facing severe economic conditions and ferocious global competition it is clear that the status quo is not viable. Our leading institutions cannot continue to be internationally competitive, provide a first-rate teaching experience and offer generous support to disadvantaged students without access to increased funding."

Lord Browne's team includes Tony Blair's former adviser Sir Michael Barber, economist Diane Coyle, David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, and Julia King, vice-chancellor of Aston University.


Tuition fees serve the interests of a minority of graduates from advantaged backgrounds attending prestigious universities targeted by top-paying employers. With parental financial help they will soon repay their student debts. In contrast great numbers of able, altruistic young people are looking instead for fulfilling careers in teaching, in the caring professions, in the voluntary sector, and in other lower-paid occupations.

These graduates, the majority, will be repaying their student debts for 15 to 25 years, and these repayments will take a far larger proportion of their lifetime earnings. They will be hardest hit aged around 30, unable to buy houses, afford family life or save for retirement, while being additionally taxed to pay for our huge national debt and the health and pension needs of growing numbers of senior citizens.

This is grossly unfair on the majority of young graduates, and raising the cap will make matters far worse. The National Union of Students has proposed a responsible and feasible alternative: graduates should contribute to the costs of higher education, but on the principle that the more they subsequently earn, the more they pay. A graduate tax set at appropriate rates on earned income, could raise as much revenue as tuition fees but in an equitable way.

Lawrence Lockhart